They just won't mix

Observations on emigration

The class began badly. "Como se llama?" the teacher asked hopefully. I was stumped. I might have been living in 'Alcúdia, 20 miles south of Valencia, for ten months, but I'd managed to bumble through trips to the supermarket or post office with a shrug and a "Sí, gracias". This time, I had come unstuck.

Mohammad, a Moroccan electrician, intervened. "She wants your name," he whispered helpfully. It was my first Spanish lesson for immigrants, under a government-subsidised scheme that gives migrant workers basic language skills. Moroccan butchers, Georgian gardeners and Romanian housewives fill the seats in the strip-lit room, eager to learn. For ?3 (£2.10) a year, you get four hours of evening classes a week in intermediate Spanish to help fill out forms, buy a stamp or pick up some milk. It's a forward-thinking scheme that seems to benefit everyone. Except for one group: the British.

Despite there being between one and one and a half million of us living in Spain, I was the only Brit in the class. For the teachers, that was no surprise. "The English live apart, with their own jobs and own bars. They close themselves off," explained Juan, who has been teaching immigrants Spanish for 25 years at 'Alcúdia's Enric Valor college. "They just don't try to integrate with the Spanish." This year's course has been the most popular yet, he said, with 60 immigrants filling three classes. Another 25 are on the waiting list. "We have a few Scots in the advanced class, but that's the most British we have ever had."

According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, 58,000 people left for Spain in 2004-2005 and the number is rising. More people emigrated from the UK in 2006 than has ever been recorded by the ONS. Yet, for the Spanish, this group of immigrants is proving problematic.

"There are even schools just for British children and they prefer that to mixing with Spanish children," said Ximo, another teacher at the college. "The Moroccans, Bulgarians - all of them try to live with us and try to integrate. The British don't."

Even some of the British immigrants in Spain agree. "The younger generation is learning Spanish, but the majority are retired, so they either can't or can't be bothered," says James Parkes, editor of the Costa Blanca News. "The central government is aiming [Spanish classes] at people outside of the EU, with a different culture. There's a bit of a 'stuck here with a load of North Africans' attitude."

The irony in many of the Brits citing immigration and a loss of national identity as a big reason for upping sticks is not lost on Parkes. "The Spanish approach it differently because they emigrated in huge numbers themselves."

Maybe that is why Britain's current policy on English lessons for immigrants is in a mess. Everyone agrees they would be a good idea, but no one wants to pick up the tab. Private colleges charge huge fees for basic English lessons, putting them out of reach for low-wage migrants. A one-term English course at International House in London will set you back £435. Some further education colleges offer subsidised courses of English for speakers of other languages, but even these are expensive. A 15-week course at the North Essex Adult Community College in my home town of Witham would cost £99.

The Spanish see teaching their language to immigrants - even language-retarded Brits like me - as an investment. "The idea is to integrate, because it's better than to live apart," explains Ximo as he gathers his things for his next class. "Europe needs the immigrants for work. If we give them something, they give us something back."